Decision to sit or play Aaron Rodgers if playoffs are out of reach not that easy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Julius Peppers stopped on his way out of the Bank of America Stadium on Sunday to talk for a minute or two about his former teammate, Aaron Rodgers.

Yes, Peppers admitted, he let up a little bit on his shared sack of Rodgers in the fourth quarter of the Carolina Panthers' 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers, telling ESPN.com that he wanted to “get the ball but make sure [Rodgers] didn’t get hurt.”

Then Peppers added, “Be kind to the guys back there,” and walked off into the North Carolina evening.

Not everyone will be so nice to Rodgers.

And it’s why Packers coach Mike McCarthy will have a difficult decision to make about whether to play his two-time NFL MVP quarterback or shut him down for the rest of the season if the Packers are eliminated from playoff consideration.

That’s a decision McCarthy and his staff -- likely with some consultation from Rodgers -- could have to make before the players return to work on Tuesday morning. If the Atlanta Falcons beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football, the Packers will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2008 -- Rodgers’ first season as a starter.

And yet there are still two games left on the schedule.

Yes, there’s Rodgers and there’s everybody else. The world of football is not an egalitarian society.

But what kind of message would it send if McCarthy shuts down Rodgers for the remainder of the year?

Maybe McCarthy already knows how he will play it, although he didn’t offer any hints after the Packers lost 31-24 on Sunday at Carolina in Rodgers’ first game in two months, after breaking his right collarbone.

Many would say it’s a no-brainer to sit Rodgers on Saturday at home against the Minnesota Vikings and again in the regular-season finale at the Detroit Lions. Why put him at risk to re-injure his surgically repaired right clavicle -- or sustain any other injury?

But what do you tell David Bakhtiari, your stud left tackle?

Or Davante Adams, if he’s cleared from the concussion that knocked him out of Sunday’s game?

Or Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb?

Or Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Morgan Burnett, Damarious Randall and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix?

None of them has a right collarbone with 13 screws and two plates in it. Nor had any of them been on injured reserve for the previous eight weeks.

But Rodgers was medically cleared to play on Sunday against the Panthers and didn’t shy away from running or contact. In fact, he was more aggressive than he was when he returned from his broken left collarbone in 2013; on that day, he scrambled only once and went down to the turf before he could get hit on two of his three sacks. Against the Panthers, he scrambled six times for 43 yards and was sacked three times.

No one would blame McCarthy for playing it safe with his quarterback. It’s the easy way -- and maybe even the right way -- to go.

Throw Brett Hundley back out there for the final two games and see if he can increase his trade value in the offseason.

It even took Rodgers until the final moments of his nine-minute postgame press conference on Sunday to say: “Well, I’m a competitor. Until they tell me otherwise, I’m expecting to play.”

Up until that point, he was noncommittal, saying he would “see how I feel tomorrow and make a decision at that point.”

If Rodgers plays Saturday night against Minnesota, it would be a rematch with Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, whose hit in Week 6 broke Rodgers’ collarbone. Chances are, Barr wouldn’t treat Rodgers the way Peppers did on Sunday at Carolina.